Excuse me for neglecting my bread, pastry and pasta recipes again but foraging is a big passion of mine and I wanted to share it all with you. I recently attended a foraging course in Ballymaloe with Darina Allen, which was very interesting and made me realise how great foraging can be. So I decided to put together a post on wild food and just some of the things you might see if you take a wander in the hedgerows today. Back in the Spring I made two interesting posts on foraging which can be found here and here and are well worth a gander.
The oblong scarlet berries with a hint of orange can be found growing abundantly in hedgerows from late August to November and longer. They are best picked after the first frosts in October. They are said to contain twenty times more vitamin C than oranges. Rose hip syrup is the best thing to make at home with rose hips and is the basis for many rose hip recipes (elderflower cordial being the same for elderflower recipes). I made my first ever rose hip syrup just yesterday and it is delicious. The Japanese rose, found near the coast and often planted by busy roadsides, is also edible. By the way the seeds from the rose hip can also be dried and kept as an itching powder down the backs of unsuspecting enemies.
Guelder rose grows in woodland and hedgerows and is fairly widespread on this island. A shrub up to 4m high, the red berries are often substituted for cranberries. I have never cooked with the berries and am slightly weary about identifying it.
Chamomile is common plant and has few culinary uses. Chamomile can be dried and made into tea. The smell of chamomile is very nice however the tea isn’t. To be honest I am not too sure if it belongs in the kitchen at all.
Pineapple weed, also called pineapple mayweed, is a very common low-growing plant growing about 20cm high. It thrives on disturbed ground, field or path edges, waste ground and well-trodden places especially. It flowers from May to October and is best eaten during summer. Its green flower heads lack petals and at first glance look like unopened chamomile buds. The leaves and buds smell and taste just like pineapple. The plant is very nice as a garnish for a dessert. Rene Redzepi uses the flower heads in a dessert with strawberries and Ultan Cooke, head chef of Aniar restaurant in Galway, infuses them into an apple jelly. I love nibbling on pineapple weed when ever I come across it.
Nearly as common as brambles, the small blackcurrant coloured berries of the elder tree are best picked around September or October time. Elderberries can be added to apple pie, fruit jams, chutney, ice cream and made into wine or a syrup. Dried, the berries can be used as a substitute for raisins in scones and fruit cakes.
There are about 15 different mints growing in the wild, all of which are edible. They all look slightly different but have the same characteristic mint small. Most have green leaves, some tinted with purple, and most have pink or purple flower spikes. Most mints grow throughout the summer and up to around October and tend to favour damp, moist places that get some sun. Watermint is common and widespread and favours wet places and, surprise surprise, often grows in water. The mint pictured above is catmint, a bit bitter and much loved by cats.
Fennel can be found growing by the sea, often on cliff edges. It can grow up to 6 ft in height and although the young stems and leaves are best eaten in early summer, there are many reasons to gather fennel in the autumn. In late October the seeds can be harvested. A very interesting thing to do with the well-grown stems and leaves in autumn is to dry them completely and use them as a bed to grill fish on over the barbecue the following summer. Chefs pay big money for fennel pollen, which is often nothing more than the dried leaves.
The hawthorn, or whitethorn, tree is very worthwhile to the forager. Very early in the year, you can nibble on the young buds. The young leaves can be eaten in April either cooked or in a salad. May time sees the tree covered in white flowers and by the end of September the berries can be eaten. I have never eaten any of the Hawthorn quartet but next year I am determined to try them all. The haws are the most abundant of all wild fruits and can be found growing in hedgerows, waste ground and just about everywhere else. They contain one large seed and due to their high amount of pectin make a thick jelly.
Hops are a hedgerow climber, 3 to 6 m high, and are quite scarce in Ireland. The most traditional use for hops is in beer. The hops flower from July to August and can be dried by stringing up in a dry place before using in your own beer. The young shoots and leaves, picked no later than May, are also edible and are supposedly very nice. The young shoots can be cooked like asparagus. The seeds are also edible. Interestingly, the hop is a member of the Cannabis family.
Yarrow is very common on grassy banks, hedgerows, coastal locations and on the edges of fields. Growing up to 60 cm in height, yarrow flowers in an umbrella of dense white flowers that have a yellow centre and are often tinged with pink. The whole plant’s edible although the leaves are most often eaten. It can be collected from May to September and it smells like a mixture of rosemary and lavender. The feathery leaves can be boiled and tossed with butter and they are beautiful with lamb. Yarrow can be eaten raw but dress it with olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice first to bring out its flavour.
Honey-Suckle is a common climber of hedgerow and woodland that twines up other shrubs and trees. The heavenly smelling flowers appear from July to August and ripen into red berries later in the autumn. The name of this plant probably refers to the nectar being sucked from the base of the flower. This plant happens to be common in Ireland but is practically absent from Mayo for some reason.
Comfrey grows in damp, shady places especially near rivers, streams, ditches, roadsides and by the edges of woods. Borage is a plant that I have never eaten and quite honestly don’t know how to identify it. The leaves are hairy underneath and glossy green above. What you would do with it I have no idea. Darina Allen makes fritters out of the leaves.
Borage is related to comfrey and to an untrained eye both leaves can look similar. However once it flowers there is no mistaking it. The five-petalled flowers are bristly, as is the entire plant. The flowers make a nice garnish to summer drinks such as elderflower cordial. The young leaves and flowers can both be eaten but I have yet to cook with them.
The medlar grows on a small tree and resembles large kiwi coloured haws about the size of a ping pong ball. The fruits must be allowed to ‘blet’, or rot before they are eaten which is usually around November time. I have never eaten a decomposed medlar so really don’t have a clue what to make with them in the kitchen except for a medlar jelly. Shakespeare refers to the medlar in Romeo and Juliet, comparing it to an ‘open-arse’, quite a fitting description in my mind.
A common and widespread small tree or shrub, the hazelnut is ready to pick when it turns brown from late August to October. However you will have to beat the squirrels to them. Grey squirrels are a nuisance nearly wiping out the beautiful native red squirrel and eating all of our nuts. In my opinion, a squirrel (grey, of course!) and hazelnut burger seems like the perfect solution. If you do manage to beat the squirrels to the nuts, remove the husk and dry them in a single layer in a warm area such as a hot press. Hazelnut with chocolate is a match made in heaven and they also make a lovely pastry.
Extremely rare tree of woodland and parks, walnuts are best picked from October to November. If you don’t want to wait, you can pick the whole fruits in July when still green and pickle them or make a walnut ketchup. If picking in the autumn, wait for the green fruit to split revealing the familiar brain-looking nut. The husks contain a juice that will stain anything it comes into contact with, so wear gloves when collecting. Walnuts have many culinary uses such as a sauce for pasta, a nutty pastry and one of the nicest breads I have ever eaten.
The sweet, or Spanish, chestnut is rare in this country although it is sometimes planted in woods and parks. The leaves are shiny and dark green. The fruit’s a large, round prickly green case that encloses up to three dark, shiny red-brown nuts. They are much smaller than their southern European sister, the single nutted marron. The sweet chestnut is also unrelated to the horse chestnut which has very different leaves, husks and only ever contains a single nut. It is unfortunate that this is the case due to its abundance, however at least the young ones can have fun making conkers. Sweet Chestnuts can be collected in October as windfalls and made into flour for breads and pasta or else added to stews.
Lady’s Bedstraw is an easily recognisable plant that grows 10-20 cm high with dense clusters of yellow flowers that appear from June to September. It is abundant on dry grassland, coastal paths and especially near the sea. It smells a bit like hay, tobacco and even vanilla. As the name might suggest, lady’s bedstraw was traditionally used to stuff mattresses and it can also be used as a rennet substitute to curdle milk when making cheese
The rowantree is common on mountain sides, hence its other name Mountain Ash, and is very often planted in streets and parks as a decorative tree, so you don’t have to climb a mountain to get your rowan berries. Just make sure not to pick them in a polluted area, such as by a busy road. The berries are best picked in late September and October. The fruit can be made into jam, wine and most commonly jelly.
There really is nothing much to say about wild apples. You find them in the wild and they can be used just like normal apples.
This tall, vigorous, common plant will grow anywhere and is so strong that it can bust through concrete and grow up in the middle of buildings. Most people detest this plant which is nearly impossible to kill but for the forager it’s a good find. The thick hollow stems are not worth eating in autumn but in the spring the plant puts up new shoots that resemble fat, red asparagus stalks. The shoots can be used both sweet and savoury and pretty much any rhubarb recipe can be adapted to use this plant. I have only eaten knotweed once where it was boiled until just tender and then sauteed along with some of the young leaves in butter before being piled on toasted sourdough. It was delicious.
Wild thyme is a low-growing, spreading plant that grows on dry grassland often close to the sea. Widespread and common throughout, wild thyme reaches a maximum of 25 cm in height. Pink-purple flowers appear in summer. It can be picked all year round and responds well to drying. It has a milder flavour than ‘normal’ thyme, so you may need a small bit more when using it in your cooking.
Watercress is a common sight in streams, ditches and shallow running water and grows in every county in Ireland. The leaves can be picked nearly all year round. Rene Redzepi uses the cooked stems as a vegetable. There is one danger with wild watercress, the liver fluke parasite. Avoid watercress growing downstream of grazing animals and never pick from stagnant water. I would recommend avoiding the salads and always cooking wild watercress as this kills the parasite. Watercress very often grows intertwined with Fool’s watercress. Both are edible, though fool’s watercress is hugely inferior. With watercress, the top leaf is the biggest and they decrease as you go down the stem. With Fool’s watercress, the smallest leaf is always at the top and the leaves get bigger as they go down. Fool’s watercress also has small green flowers, watercress has small white flowers.
You really could imagine that cars could be run on this stuff, it has such an over powering petrol flavour this time of year so don’t bother gathering it, wait till the spring when it is very good indeed. See my post on coastal foraging for more on rock samphire.
A sprawling perennial, forming clumps on cliffs, shingle shores and other coastal locations, sea beet or sea spinach is superior to cultivated spinach in every way. Its thick, glossy and leathery green leaves taste similar to cultivated spinach but with a salty tang. It goes particularly well with fish and can be substituted with any recipe. The best time to collect the leaves is in April and early May but they can be eaten in the Autumn. Older leaves may however require the tough midrib to be removed.
Marsh samphire grows, unsurprisingly, in salt marshes and is best picked in summer. It flowers in August and September and is past its best at this stage as it develops a tough fibrous inner core. Marsh samphire is served in many fancy restaurants, often as a garnish. my favourite way to eat samphire is raw with its sea fresh salty flavour.
Sea Purslane can be found in salt marshes and coastal dunes around Ireland. The leaves are best picked before they flower during spring and summer. The green leaves are similar to sage but smaller. Sea Purslane can be eaten raw in salads or better still added to pan fried fish or sautéed mushrooms for the last few seconds to ever so lightly soften. I have also seen Sea Purslane tossed with fried scallops in a street food stall in London.
Sea Lavender is a locally common plant found on salt marshes. Pink flowers on branched and spreading sprays appear July to September. I have never cooked with sea lavender but it apparently makes a nice flavoured sugar.
Possibly the most well known and most gathered of all wild fruits, the blackberry is something we all know and love. Wine, vinegar, jelly, sorbet, ice cream, crumble, coulis – the possibilities are endless and confined only to your culinary creativity. One of the best things to do with the blackberry is eat them straight off the bush as you stroll along an old country path. I love the slight differences between different blackberries, some sweet, some sharp and some intensely fruity.
Get out into the hedgerows today and get picking blackberries. They are abundant, widespread and easy to identify. You really can’t get better than that. Oh, ya, and they are also on the bushes right now.